It takes significant resources to produce carbon fiber, including expensive raw materials, specialized equipment and a lot of energy. Over the years, only a limited number of producers have profitably made the investment. So when I learned in 2008 that a company in the Middle East, Akrilik Kimya Sanayii A.S. (AKSA, Istanbul, Turkey), was going to join this exclusive club, I was very interested in tracking its progress. Today, it’s no surprise that the company is having success despite a tough market. The credit goes to its solid business model. Dan Pichler, AKSA’s director of carbon fiber, spoke recently at Carbon Fiber 2010 in La Jolla, Calif., about how the company’s model supported its first steps toward carbon fiber production.
AKSA has been an acrylic fiber producer since 1972. It offers standard and specialty acrylic fibers for a broad range of applications and customers. It is, in fact, the world’s largest acrylic fiber producer, with a 13 percent market share. AKSA has a well-established marketing and distribution system and has been selling and shipping products internationally since 1977, from its well-situated port facility, which is equipped with onsite power plants. AKSA is a publicly traded company with a well-positioned senior shareholder, a Turkey-based conglomerate, the AKKÖK Group. Each of these factors was a key enabler in AKSA’s carbon fiber business plan.
According to Pichler, AKSA also gathered considerable market intelligence to facilitate its understanding of the carbon fiber market. Although aerospace was the primary sector (and posted the greatest expenditures) in the carbon fiber market 10 years ago, AKSA saw that the situation had changed. Today, industrial applications represent at least 50 percent of the carbon fiber market, estimated at greater than 40,000 metric tonnes (88 million lb), with a value between $1 billion and $1.5 billion (USD). Pichler cited wind turbine blades, plastics compounding, pressure vessels, a variety of automotive, marine and infrastructure applications, and other sectors as leading markets for carbon fiber, and AKSA also expects these industrial uses to increase.
“In another 10 years, the majority of carbon fiber will go into these industrial sectors,” he maintains. Most of the specific carbon fiber applications, such as fuel cells or compressed natural gas tanks, are still at the beginning of their product lifecycles, so demand can only increase. “We expect fiber demand to double by 2015, and double again by 2020, reaching 150,000 metric tonnes [330 million lb],” says Pichler.
AKSA has purchased and installed equipment worth millions to get to the point of making carbon fiber, and Pichler freely admits that the company is not looking to meet a specific price target. “About half the cost to produce PAN-based fiber has to do with the price of oil,” he explains. “The price of acrylonitrile and oil can’t be influenced by fiber producers.” But, he adds, carbon fiber can be “affordable,” especially in the right applications. For example, carbon fiber in wind blade structures can facilitate the manufacturing of a larger turbine at the same weight, resulting in reduced electricity production costs. Similarly, a hybrid composite, in which some carbon fiber is combined with fiberglass or other materials, can form a lighter overall structure that uses less material. And, claims Pichler, as carbon fiber producers scale up to supply increasing demand, that will incrementally reduce carbon fiber costs over time.
The bottom line is that AKSA entered the market to address a perceived need for high-quality carbon fiber from a reliable source at a price that is competitive in industrial applications. The company believes that it understands the market and has identified a sustainable market strategy that — based on its acrylic-fiber expertise, pilot line development and plant infrastructure — will enable extensive future expansion.
AKSA’s initial production line is already running successfully. The company recently announced construction of a second carbon fiber line and expansion of its initial line (see “Learn More,” below). With its focus on standard-modulus 3K through 24K fiber forms, AKSA is positioned to grow and, perhaps, partner with strategic customers in the future. Committed to earn a 10 percent share of the carbon fiber market by 2020, AKSA could be well-positioned to meet a significant portion of what almost certainly will be a great need for carbon fiber in industrial applications.